Quest for the Historical Jesus (Guest Post: Le Donne Responds!)

pointWe’ve concluded here a series of posts on the Quest for the Historical Jesus. The last post focused on Anthony Le Donne’s book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (available at fine retail outlets and at popular prices). Anthony wanted to post a comment to my piece, but I asked instead if the comment could be published as a guest post, and Anthony agreed. Anthony’s comment is set forth below.

This is a good time to plug The Jesus Blog, which Anthony co-authors with Chris Keith. Chris and Anthony are kind of the Maris and Mantle of Jesus memory-history (I say this thinking fondly of the 1962 World Series, and knowing that Anthony is a passionate SF Giants fan). The Jesus Blog ostensibly focuses on historical Jesus studies, though Anthony’s mind is known to wander into the territory of popular music and household appliances. One thing I’ve noticed about Anthony is that if he truly respects your work, he makes fun of it. So, as you read Anthony’s kind review of my post, you can wonder along with me exactly where I went wrong.


Larry, thank you for your thoughtful review of my book.  I haven’t yet had a chance to read all of the comments, but I plan to soon.  This post will simply respond to your review.

A few things come to mind.  The first is that I think that Jesus is indeed a good topic for Jewish-Christian dialogue.  But it is only one among many.  It might also be worth pointing out that that the “historical Jesus” can be a precarious entry point.

This topic has the appearance of being a particularly Christian avenue.  As such, the topic of Jesus comes with the danger of alienating Jews from the start.  Like a Jewish friend told me over breakfast a few weeks ago; he said, “I’ve been seeking spiritual truth alongside Christians for years now, but there will always be something about the name ‘Jesus’ that will stick in my throat.”

On the other hand, Christians risk much in this discussion, especially when we’re talking about the “historical Jesus”.  Historical Jesus scholars have tended to steer toward Arian (not Aryan – although that’s an interesting discussion too) conclusions.  It can be a tall order to convince your average Christian (most have Docetist tendencies) that studying the fully human Jesus is a worthwhile task.

My second thought is that I probably need to clarify my argument that memory refraction is (most often) a continuous and incremental trajectory.  In making this argument I’ve used the word “reliable”.  I’ve gotten so much grief over this that I almost wish that I’d used a different word.  But here’s the thing: it’s the right word.  Identity (both individual and collective) relies on memory.  So when I say that memory refraction is “reliable” I do not mean that we have a reliable window to the past.  I mean that memory reliably acts like memory.  In other words, memory distorts [refracts] predictably in many cases.  It refracts in a way that reinforces identity.

Thirdly and finally, I really like this turn of phrase: “for Le Donne, memory is not a tool – it is the thing he studies as a historian. For Le Donne to be troubled by memory would be like a geologist being troubled by rocks.”  I think that this is really well said.  As long as historians think that they’re looking for something that existed prior to memory, they’ll lament the evolution of memory.  I constantly hear folks retort, “yes, but what actually happened?”  Memory is what happened. Mnemonic activity isn’t just integral to the posterity of the event; it is integral to the event itself.  It is wrongheaded to think that memory can be divorced from reality.

Thank you for this chance to respond.

  • Bill Heroman

    Anthony, I feel like I’m coming to understand better and better, but if the main idea is to see how “memory distorts” and “refracts”, then it seems flatly contradictory to say “Memory is what happened.” I point this out in the interest of communication, because it honestly seems I have no other choice than to reinterpret what “is” means. FYI.

    • anthony

      Hi Bill, I’m not sure I understand your question, but I’ll take a stab.

      Please keep in mind that I’m particularly interested in the ingredients that make up historical events. There may be parallels with what I say with phenomenology, but I won’t go there.

      In any given culture there are streams of memory, patterns in which figures and events take shape. Whenever a new event or figure is perceived, the parameter of these perceptions are (to great extent) defined by previously established mnemonic patterns. With out these social frames (and/or streams) of memory, perceptions cannot function in a way that will be interpreted as significant. And, of course, history requires something or someone to be interpreted as significant. So without a tight weaving of memory and perception of the novum, significant events and figures are not possible. In any happening, memory is integral to the happening itself. Subsequently, the same stream of memory that made the historical event possible will continue to flow into other mnemonic happenings. Memory is what happened and it will continue to be what happens.

      • Bill Heroman

        Forgot to check back here, a month ago. Anthony, I think I get it now. Previously, it sounded like you were saying, “The memory someone has is precisely what happened.” Obviously, this wasn’t what you meant, so I was confused.

        Now I think I see you saying that, “A memory got made, however it got made, and that making of that memory is the most significant thing that took place.” I see now where Chris Keith said the difference between you two is that he wants to use memory to get back to what happened and you don’t. Oddly fascinating.

        FWIW, I suppose my hangup was a different sense of the word “Memory”. Much like “History” can mean what happened or a written work about the past, I had trouble switching from “Memory” as the present recollection we share versus “Memory” as an active process of memorializing.

        All very interesting… and thanks once again.

  • lbehrendt

    Anthony, I’ll leave it to Bill to raise the ontological questions, but I’d like to ask about the connection between memory and identity. I suppose that both individual and social memory reinforces identity, but my guess is that you’re thinking more about how social memory reinforces identity. If I’m right, then I wonder if “reinforce” is strong enough a word! For Jewish identity, our shared memory-history is central to our identity. We don’t always agree on the content of this memory, but we take it as given that our people have shared a history, and that our memory of that history is (largely, or maybe even entirely) the content of what is Jewish.

    You have me thinking about memory in terms of how memory functions, and how (in a non-scientific sense) we think it functions. In the sense you described in your book, we refract memory into personal familiar thought categories, and those thought categories are themselves changed as memory is processed and re-processed. So, we can say that memory reinforces identity in at least two respects: (1) the process of refracting memory into familiar thought categories reinforces those categories, by providing them with additional content, together with a kind of validation that comes from their proving to be useful in memory storage, and (2) memory changes our thought categories in a way that keeps them up to date, and more in alignment with the impact of the current events that need to be stored as memory into those categories. We might also imagine that we define ourselves in part by means of the things we remember about ourselves: I am the son of that mother and that father, I went to those schools, lived in those cities, married that woman, and so forth.

    But I wonder if you mean something completely different about memory reinforcing identity, something that is more self-conscious. I’m thinking, for example, of Luke’s report of the last supper in 22:19: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” To be sure, we Jews also know a lot about being commanded to remember! But what happens to identity when memory is commanded and becomes a religious act? And what happens to identity when we identify ourselves as rememberers?

    One final question. You say that memory is “reliable” because it “refracts in a way that reinforces identity.” I find that statement confusing. Even in theory, could memory refract in a way that would not reinforce identity? Is is possible for a community to lose its identity through poor memory? Given our acceptance of refraction as healthy, is there such a thing as poor community memory?

    I think you’re raising some fascinating questions here, Prof. Le Donne. I hope you plan to write about them.

    • anthony

      I think this is a good summary of what I’ve called the mnemonic cycle. I’m sure that there are differences between conscious remembrance and unconscious remembrance, but the cycle continues regardless.

      As to the reliable comment, let me leave you with a line from Jackie Brown. The context of this line is offensive on several levels, but there is something relevant here: Ordell’s character has just been informed that his girlfriend isn’t to be trusted. Ordell replies, “You can’t trust Melanie. But you can always trust Melanie to be Melanie.” So I paraphrase: “You can’t trust Memory. But you can always trust memory to act like memory.”


      • lbehrendt

        Hmm. I will counter with a line from the M*A*S*H TV series, when Frank Burns finally admitted he was wrong about something, and Henry Blake replied, “You’re always wrong, Frank. That’s what’s so right about you.” I might paraphrase back: “I can trust memory to always act like memory. But I don’t trust memory.” Only that wouldn’t be true, exactly.

  • Dr. Le Donne, thank you for your work and the above post.

    A quick question: Is it possible to improve the reliability of memory, specifically to improve on the quality of one’s individual and/or collective identity? In other words, can memory’s refraction be aimed or focused to create a better identity? Specifically, can we improve on the Christ we currently remember to create a better (historical) Christianity?

    • anthony

      Thanks for the question Justin, absolutely! Memory is always being “improved”. We trying to improved our autobiographical memories via our families and friends. And historians try to improve collective memories by shedding new light on old texts or digging up new evidence. Social spurs and constraints are always at work to improve memory. Of course, sometimes these “improvements” get challenged by subsequent remembrancers.

      • anthony

        sorry for the awkward verb disagreements in that post… perhaps I will be allowed to improve my grammar: “We are always trying to improve our…”

        • lbehrendt

          You should be able to find an EDIT link under your comments. If that doesn’t work, please let me know, and my crack staff will get to work on it.

  • Niccolo Donzella

    I am trying to understand this from outside the field and without a fraction of your knowledge base (and I really appreciate the opportunity) — so here goes:

    I understand you to be saying that, as an historian, you study memory because memory is history, like rocks are geology. While something obviously provokes memory and brings it into existence, that event is not accessible or recoverable separate and apart from the memory it created. In this way, memory operates like one of the five senses, it is the exclusive avenue through which we may receive history and there is no way around using it. That is why it is “wrongheaded to think that memory can be divorced from reality” so that reality may be accessed free from memory. “Memory is what happened” in the sense that it is all that we are able to know about the original event.

    Applied to HJ, all gospels contain memory, some older than others, some derived directly from HJ and some derived from later personal or community reactions to HJ. (Your books, this blog, etc., are also, then, HJ memory, but of a much removed and recent vintage.) The historian can sort through these pieces of memory and make judgments about them based on whatever evaluative categories he/she chooses (e.g., theology, social science, criticism, etc.), but in the end memory forms a closed system in which the historian must operate and from which the historian may not escape. What makes memory reliable, in your use of that term, is that memory records and preserves something that happened in a continuing trajectory from original event through as many levels of subsequent reaction as are present, including what we are all saying here.

    • anthony

      Thank you Niccolo, I think that this is fair assessment of one of the aspects of my program. Thought I should say that I have generally avoided using the word “preserve” in connection to memory. Memory’s capacity to “preserve” is highly suspect. I would rather say that the event provides further momentum for cultural/social currents of memory within a given society. We can and should expect elements of conventionalization, narrativization, cross-pollination etc. These features help us chart memory and compare certain memory streams against other memory streams.

      • Niccolo Donzella

        Thanks for taking the time to reply — I enjoy the blog and the way you mediate between conflicting perspectives and positions, both scholarly and theological. Hard work, no doubt.
        I see your point about preserve. It really cannot preserve anything except the bare fact that something made an impact. Otherwise, memory is fluid.
        The program you are describing reminds me a bit of the way physicists try to discover unknown or presently unobservable phenomena based on observable effects. We know from the resurrection memory that something happened to provoke it, but cannot observe what that was?